2 Ivan Illich
popularity : 71%
Early Life and Education
Ivan Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. His father, a Croatian civil engineer, was Roman Catholic, while his mother was from a Sephardic Jewish family. Illich was expelled from the Piaristengymnasium in Vienna by the occupying Nazis in 1941 because of his mother’s Jewish ancestry. He completed his pre-university studies in Florence, and studied histology and crystallography at the University of Florence.
Ivan Illich then decided to prepare for the priesthood. From 1942 to 1946, he studied theology and philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the Vatican. He completed his PhD in 1951 at the University of Salzburg, with a dissertation on the historian Arnold J. Toynbee and the nature of historical knowledge. In this period he developed an understanding of the institutionalization of charity in the 13th century church, which helped form his later critique of institutionalization in modern society.
In New York and Porto Rico
On completing his PhD, Ivan Illich asked to be assigned as an assistant parish priest in New York City. His congregation in Washington Heights was largely Irish and Puerto Rican. Illich became fluent in Spanish and began speaking out for Puerto Rican culture, and against "cultural ignorance" on the part of the dominant culture.
In 1956 Illich was appointed vice-rector of the Catholic University of Ponce in Puerto Rico. There he met Everett W. Reimer, whom Illich credited with awakening his interest in public education, and who later joined Illich at CIDOC. In 1960 the Bishop of Ponce forbade Catholics to vote for Governor Luis Munoz Marin, who advocated state-sponsored birth control. Illich opposed the Bishop’s position and was forced out of the university.
Early CIDOC Period (1961-1969)
Illich was also opposed to Pope John XXIII’s call in 1960 for North American missionaries to "modernize" the Latin American Church. Illich wanted missionaries to learn Spanish, recognize the limitations of their own cultural experiences, and assume their duties as adult educators with humility and respect. To promote this approach, Illich founded the Centre for Intercultural Formation to train American missionaries for work in Latin America.
The Centre for Intercultural Formation was initially founded at Fordham University, but Illich wanted the institution to be based in Latin America. After walking and hitchhiking several thousand miles he decided on Cuernavaca in Mexico. In 1961, With the help of Feodora Stancioff and Brother Gerry Morris, Illich founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) at Cuernavaca.
The ostensible purpose of CIDOC was to offer language courses and training to missionaries coming from North America. But upon opening the centre, Illich stated a second purpose, which was to gather sufficient influence among mission-sponsoring agencies to dissuade them from implementing Pope John XXIII’s plan to "modernise" the Church in Latin America. Illich believed that the Third World, in its under-development, was in many respects better off than the advanced industrial nations. He sought to teach "missionaries" dispatched by the Church to consider themselves as guests ready to learn from the host country, rather than as emissaries of industrial hegemony, carrying out a "war on subsistence."
The CIDOC greeted several hundred missionaries each year, providing them a freewheeling environment in which to "redefine their questions rather than completing the answers they have gotten."
Later CIDOC Period (1969-1976)
After about a decade of operation, the CIDOC’s critical analysis of the actions of the institutional Church brought it into conflict with the Vatican. Illich was called to Rome to be questioned, and was ordered to leave CIDOC. He managed to hold out, eventually resigning all offices and church salaries, and even leaving the priesthood in 1969.
The Centre had broadened its appeal, and became known for explorations of the themes that have become identified with Illich. In 1971 CIDOC colleague Everett Reimer published "School is Dead," which remains a reference for the Homeschooling movement.
It was during this period that Illich published his best-known and most influential works, including:
- Celebration of Awareness (1971)
- Deschooling Society (1971)
- Tools for Conviviality (1973)
- Energy and Equity (1974)
- Medical Nemesis (1976)
Illich’s concerns about the negative impact of the "radical monopoly" of the dominant systems of education hit a responsive chord in the libertarian atmosphere of the 1970s. The book "Deschooling Society" became an international best-seller, and Illich was much in demand as a speaker.
Towards the end of this period the numbers of missionaries heading for Latin America declined, and the general climate became more rightwing. Illich was also concerned by the influx of formal academics and the growing "institutionalization" of the CIDOC. In 1976, with consent from CIDOC director Valentina Borremans and the members, he shut the center down. Several members subsequently continued language schools in Cuernavaca, some of which still exist.
After CIDOC (1977-2002)
After shutting down CIDOC, Illich retained a lifelong base in Cuernavaca, but travelled constantly.
In the late seventies interest in Illich’s ideas began to wane within the international educational community. The new trends in northern educational systems were towards increasing centralized control, nationalized curricula, and bureaucratic accreditation of learning. Invitations to speak and to write slackened, but Illich continued to develop the central themes of his earlier work.
Illich next wrote a series of books addressing economic questions:
- The Right To Useful Unemployment And Its Professional Enemies (1978)
- Toward a History of Needs (1978)
- Shadow Work (1981)
The last two of these books look at the economics of scarcity. Illich contrasts the socially destructive desire to profit, through the provision of goods in sectors where there is "scarcity," with the socially constructive desire to share "subsistence."
In the book "Gender" (1982) Illich argued that industrial capitalism creates and depends on a simplistic coupling of male as wage labourer and female as producer of new workers, thereby sacrificing both the feminine and masculine domains. Illich also wrote a book on the historicity of materials: "H2O And The Waters of Forgetfulness" (1985).
In late 1980s Illich turned to an exploration of literacy practices, in the books:
- ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988, co-written with Barry Sanders)
- In the Vineyard of the Text (1993)
The latter volume concerns the origins of book-learning. Illich described it as an attempt to understand the transition from the book to the computer screen, through the prism of the changes in 13th-century reading practice.
In the 1990s Ivan Illich divided his time between Mexico, the United States, and Germany. He was a Visiting Professor of Philosophy and of Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State in Pennsylvania, and also taught at the University of Bremen.
In the early 1990s Illich suffered from a growth on his face that was diagnosed as cancerous. He consulted a doctor about having the tumor removed, but was told there was a chance of losing his ability to speak, so he let the tumor grow and disfigure his face.
True to his critique of "professionalized" medicine, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to treat the cancer with traditional methods, administering his own medication. This was against the advice of his doctors, who proposed a largely sedative treatment which would have rendered his work impossible.
He regularly smoked opium to deal with the terrible pain caused by the tumor. During this period he wrote a history of pain, which was published in France after his death.
His last wish was to die surrounded by close collaborators amid the beginnings of a new learning centre he had planned in Bologna. However, he died before this wish could be realised, on December 2, 2002.
The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley was published with the title "The Rivers North of the Future" (2005).
The information in this article was drawn from the following sources:
- Wikipedia article on Ivan Illich
- Infed article on Ivan Illich (in the Encyclopaedia of informal education)
- Ivan Illich obituary in the Guardian
- Remembering Ivan Illich: a collection of short articles by those who knew Illich